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The Triple Bottom Line of sustainability

In this step, Dr Maro Triantafyllou explains the triple bottom line of sustainability.

Having outlined the concept of sustainability in the previous step, you will now explore the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) concept and gain insights into its social, economic and environmental dimensions, known widely as the Three Pillars of Sustainability.

Sustainability requires maintaining life-supporting natural capital in order for our socioeconomic goals to be met.
(Dr Warren Flint, Sustainability professional, scientist and author)

Defining the Triple Bottom Line concept

The TBL is a theoretical framework that suggests sustainability can be achieved by balancing environmental and social outcomes with economic benefits.
This concept was first articulated in 1981 by Freer Spreckley in his book Social Audit: A Management Tool for Co-operative Working in which he argued that businesses should:
… measure and report on financial performance, social wealth creation and environmental responsibility.
(Spreckley 1981)

However, TBL was first introduced as a term in 1994 by John Elkington (Elkington 1994), a business consultant and author, who strove to measure corporate performance by going beyond the traditional measures of profits to include the social and environmental dimensions (Slaper and Hall 2011). His methodology was based on the notion that businesses should be economically prosperous, promote environmental quality and be champions of social justice to be considered truly sustainable (Elkington 1999). According to this, businesses would be able to add value to investments and align projects with a range of environmental and community priorities.

Nowadays, TBL is viewed as a concept that purports to encourage the uptake of sustainable business principles based on the 3Ps principle: Profits, Planet and People; or as else stated, the 3Es principle: Ecology, Equity and Economy.


Elkington, J. (1994) ‘Towards the Sustainable Corporation: Win-Win-Win Business Strategies for Sustainable Development’. California Management Review 36 (2), 90-100

Elkington, J. (1999) Cannibals with Forks: Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. Oxford: Capstone Publishing

Slaper, T. F., Hall, T. J. (2011) ‘The Triple Bottom Line: What is it and How Does it Work?’ Indiana Business Review [online] Spring, 86 (1) 4-8. available from [8 July 2019]

Spreckley, F. (1981) Social Audit: A Management Tool for Co-operative Working. Wales: Beechwood College, 44

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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